EMS staffing shortages impacting other local cities

Lawrence firefighters are handling EMS runs until the city can hire more medics.

13 Investigates showed you how staffing shortages at Indianapolis EMS are forcing trucks out of service and causing delays.

But it's not the only central Indiana city struggling to staff its ambulances.

In Lawrence, firefighters are doing it all until the city can bring new medics back on staff.

Since October 2012, Lawrence firefighters have been doubling up - driving ambulances and responding as medics. That means on some scenes, they have to leave the ambulance to help fight the fire.

"It does put a heavier burden on the firefighters," said Dino Batalis, spokesman with the Lawrence Fire Department.

The nearly year-and-a-half experiment is the result of a $2 million budget shortfall. City leaders said they couldn't afford to pay both firefighters and medics, so they got rid of all the city's EMTs and paramedics.

"There was a total of 24 civilians that the city had let go," explained Batalis.

According to Batalis, the department is also short six firefighters, for a total loss of 30 employees over a year's time. The Lawrence Fire Department says pulling firefighters to staff ambulances is creating shortages and delays.

Take Station 40 near the old Fort Benjamin Harrison. It sits empty with the exception of a single ambulance. Its backup for life and death emergencies is no longer just a few blocks away.

"Some of difficulty in breathing or cardiac arrest would have to wait until an engine or a ladder got to their location to assist them," said Batalis. "So the response time is going to be a little longer."

The decision to put firefighters on ambulances in Lawrence has had a ripple effect. The department has had to take out of service a fire department squad, an engine and another ambulance. The department's dive team is on indefinite suspension.

Lawrence is now relying on the Indianapolis Fire Department to cover some of those gaps.

That's not a good solution, according to Mike Reeves, president of the union that represents firefighters in Marion County, including Lawrence and IFD.

"It overtaxes the system we have in place," he said, speaking of the additional runs to help cover Lawrence.

Reeves says Indianapolis firefighters are already acting as the backup to Indianapolis ambulances.

13 Investigates has discovered IEMS has its own staffing problems with a 19-percent turnover rate.

"The sooner we can fix it, the better off we are," Reeves added.

Better off because IEMS is shutting down ambulances almost daily due to a lack of manpower and paying $200,000 a month in overtime.

Reeves says some medics are going to higher paying jobs while others are just burned out.

"The crews work really hard," said a former insider at IEMS who is blowing the whistle on the shortages and shutdowns. He says the delays and risks associated with working too much overtime are adding up.

"It's incredibly unsafe," he told 13 Investigates.

"Urban 911 EMS is a hard job," said IEMS Chief Dr. Charles Miramonti.

He says the agency is also taking trucks out of service to improve efficiency and save money.

"It is critical. We can't pay for new ambulances, we can't pay for new monitors. I can't pay staff unless we have those dollars coming in the door," Miramonti said of the new approach.

Back in Lawrence, the city says it just didn't work to have firefighters covering all the medic load. It's now hiring back 13 part-time medics.

Applications are being accepted at Lawrence Fire Headquarters for the part time Medic positions.

Meanwhile, Indianapolis Public Safety Director Troy Riggs has ordered an efficiency team to review the city's EMS service and implement changes. Staffing is on the agenda.